Black Walnuts

Rich, elegant, and intense, our native American black walnuts and the magnificent tree they rain down from – embodies so many of the qualities that we admire and take pride in.  Just a taste of the rich depth of their flavor makes me feel more grownup and worldly.  If the English walnuts are Hugh Grant then black walnuts are Sean Connery ( What American actor fits? Gregory Peck? Robert Mitchum? ).   Sadly, most Americans have never tasted black walnuts.  The simpler English walnut is all they know.

Wild Black Walnuts, in the husk, out of the husk, in the shell, and shelled.

The black walnut is a tough nut to crack, but it’s well worth it.

Black walnuts’ oily richness is magnificent in pastries and is famously great in or on ice cream.  As far as I’m concerned, black walnuts are by far richest flavored of all nutmeats.  I venture to say that anything with walnuts will taste superior made with wild black walnuts.  Whether it is a simple cookie or a complex cake, black walnuts add remarkable complexity to the flavors.

The recipe for Bourbon Black Walnut Sundae in The Wild Table usually has stains all over the pages of every ones’ copy of the book.  Black walnuts and bourbon really like one another.

From something simple like black walnut ice cream, to the fabulous pasta I had last week made with gorgonzola cream sauce and toasted black walnuts – you can’t go wrong.  .  I’m very partial to a pile of black walnuts on every cheese plate nestled near the blue cheese. I TRY to have a little pile of them on a nice cheese plate sitting next to the blue cheese, but I always nibble away the pile first.

Black walnuts are notoriously difficult to crack.  Because of the iron tough shells and the brittle labyrinth of the nut’s interior, they can come out only in pieces.   If they weren’t such a colossal horror to shell, the food world would have wild black walnuts starring in dishes and desserts from stem to stern.  But they ARE extremely difficult to shell and this fact has relegated them to obscurity in current times.  Many of our more patient Grandparents however, revere them for the extraordinary culinary treasures they are.
squirrel with a walnut

If you’re drying your hulled walnuts outside, be prepared for some company.

Instructions

You’ll need good gloves, a hammer, ratty clothes, and a hard surface that you don’t care about getting stained.  There are three basic steps: 1- Removing the hull from the nut; 2- drying the walnuts; and 3- shelling out the nutmeat.

Hulling is a ridiculous dance.  The hull of a ripe black walnut will have a green-gold color and have a little “give”. You have to remove the hull which seamlessly covers the nut.  Wearing strong old boots, step on the nut & roll it around forcefully until the hull starts to come off. With gloves on, peel off any remaining hull.  Drying the nuts is a cakewalk. Put them in trays or boxes about three to four nuts deep.  You could hang them in a strong mesh bag also. Hide them somewhere protected from squirrels and moisture. After about three or four weeks, a nut meat should snap.

Shelling

Many people toss the nuts on their driveway and drive over them repeatedly.  Be careful, they can become projectiles. Yes, they are that tough.  My father’s method is slower but is still my favorite. Either find a board with a knot hole and knock out the knot to made a hole, or drill a nut sized hole in a ¾-1 inch thick board.  Put the nut in the hole, club it with a heavy hammer, lift the board leaving the broken nut behind and repeat this process. The hole keeps the nut stationary.  This is mighty important if you value your eyes, or any object you don’t want damaged by a walnut projectile.You’ll end up with a nice heap of broken black walnuts to pick through. The balance of the work you can do in front of a good TV show.  Take great care to sort out any shell pieces.

green walnuts

These immature “green” Black Walnuts are suitable for making nocino or pickling.

Either freeze or refrigerate your black walnuts.  The rich oils can turn rancid in warm weather.   After you worked hard for your pile of shelled black walnuts you certainly want to preserve them and the stability of their trademark oils. Use within the year.  Trust me, this will be easy to do.

Black Walnut Cake

3 cups black walnut pieces
1 stick butter
1 cup sugar
5 eggs
½ cup flour
2 T bourbon ( or booze of choice)
Powdered sugar

Heat oven to 350.   Sprinkle all the black walnuts and bake for 8-10 minutes. Set a timer!!! Remove from oven and cool. After they’ve cooled, put nuts into a food processor and pulse until they’re a fine meal/powder. Remove from processor.
Cake Pan- Use a 9” round pan, line with parchment and butter the paper lightly.

In the food processor ( you don’t need to wash it ), beat the remaining room temperature butter until quite fluffy. Beat the eggs in one at a time. After all eggs are in, beat in the flour.  After this is blended, add the ground nuts and the booze. Bourbon, rum, brandy or a nice liquor of your choice are all OK.

Put the batter in the parchment lined pan and bake for one half hour.  Test with a toothpick to make sure it’s not gooey inside.  Cool, remove from the pan.

After gently removing the parchment paper, sprinkle with powdered sugar shaken through a fine sieve